Saturday, April 16, 2011

Forensic commission urges review of old arson cases based on junk science

Chuck Lindell at the Austin Statesman has an update on the Forensic Science Commission's second day of deliberations over their report on faulty arson science, beefing up their recommendations to call for a reexamination of old arson cases based on flawed forensics ("Forensic panel urges new look at old arson cases," April 16):
Adopting a stronger call to action Friday, a state agency concluded its review of the Cameron Todd Willingham case by urging Texas fire officials to re-examine investigations that may have relied on arson evidence now known to be unreliable.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission also added language to its final report clarifying the role that now-discredited "arson indicators" played in Willingham's conviction on murder charges.

The commission's inquiry, focused on the arson science behind the Willingham case, was never intended to weigh the guilt or innocence of the man Texas executed in 2004.

But the report adopted Friday marked the first time a state agency has acknowledged that unreliable evidence played a role in Willingham being convicted of setting fire to his Corsicana home in 1991 and killing his three young children.
Further, reports Lindell:
much of Friday's efforts were focused on whether the state fire marshal's office — whose investigator was the prosecution's star witness against Willingham — has a duty to re-examine other past investigations that may have been influenced by now-discredited investigative techniques.

"If the science changes, if the interpretation of the case changes over time, is there an obligation to inform the stakeholders and the criminal justice system? If the answer is no, then we're really in trouble," said commissioner Sarah Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and associate professor at Sam Houston State University.

Accredited forensic labs, when presented with evidence that a result was invalid or mistaken, are required to correct the error, inform everybody involved and fix the underlying problem, added commissioner Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner of Tarrant County.

Agencies that engage in interpretive scientific analysis, including fire investigators, should follow a similar guideline, Peerwani said.
Commissioners agreed, adding language to the final report urging the state fire marshal's office to develop standards to review past cases and correct any errors discovered.
Obviously I think that's excellent news. Grits has been calling for several years for a formal reevaluation of old arson cases where flawed methods or faulty science came into play. Indeed, that's not just something that's needed in criminal cases. Most arson investigators are paid by insurance companies, not law enforcement agencies, and it's a safe bet that for every false criminal conviction based on flawed arson science, there were many more insurance claims denied for arson that never resulted in a criminal conviction. Nobody has even done the primary research to identify old criminal convictions based on flawed arson forensics, much less everyone with insurance claims that were improperly denied. There's little doubt we're talking about millions of dollars in unpaid losses if such an analysis were ever undertaken, in addition to however many innocent people have been convicted over the years..

That said, if such a reevaluation is to occur, maybe it should be the Attorney General's office that does it instead of the state fire marshal, who hasn't exactly taken an enlightened or neutral stance throughout this process.

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

So - is the non-confirmation in the Senateof Bradley gonna hold?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's the word. This was supposedly Bradley's last meeting as chair.

Anonymous said...

Unlike DNA or fingerprint analysis, arson investigation will never be reliable as it's open to the interpretation of the investigator who, like all law enforcement, will be prone to use his "gut feeling" in determining whether or not a case for arson exists.

And in the absence of a gut feeling, other "scientific" indicators such as tattoos, arrest records, attitude, and any prior convictions will be used to make the correct determination.

Anonymous said...

I contacted th Forensic Commission, concerning the suspiciious death of my son, Joshua Robinson, to request for the commission to review the findings of the autopsy report. I was told that THIS is not something that they do!
If not them, then who does? Are we paying for a team to have an office to do nothing? (Joshua Robinson) View attached documents, click the phrases in italics

Anonymous said...

I can't believe that the commission would rely on the word of Chuck "Iceman" Lidell as an expert on this. Isn't he a retired MMA fighter? Oh wait, Lindell, oops sorry.